Sailboat Racing’s One Design Quest
One-design sailboat racing came out of England in the late 19th century and caught fire in the United States around the time of the Model-T, when whole fleets were built en masse to save money.
The identical boats emphasized a sailor’s skills over his wallet, and launching a new class used to be as easy as sailing to yacht clubs on a prototype of your new design and taking orders. Nat Herreshoff launched the Herreshoff 15 (E class) this way in 1899, and in the summer of 1928 Burgess sailed a prototype Atlantic around Long Island Sound and received orders for 80 boats. In just two years, 100 Atlantics were built in the production lines of the German factory Abeking and Rasmussen.
In the 1930’s, the Atlantics, Sound Interclubs, and other one designs of the previous decade took turns falling out of style. A lack of concensus among yacht clubs as to which kind of sailboat to race kept the racing local, and frustrated sailors.
A new, excellent, affordable design that could be used for interclub racing became the Holy Grail. Announcements of new one design classes appeared monthly in Yachting, including proposals by Herreshoff, Phillip Rhodes, and Olin Stephens, but no clear favorite emerged until Cornelius Shields commissioned the 33′ International One Design (IOD) from Norwegian designer-builder, Bjarne Aas in 1935.
The Yankee One Design Association formed within a month of a fleet of 25 Norwegian Built IODs arriving in Long Island. Waldo Brown, the association’s president declared, “We cannot expect Yankee yacht yards to prosper and provide good service if Yankee yachtsmen spend their dollars in Norway and Sweden.”
This show of nationalism was because by 1937, the depression had been hard on the yacht design and boat building industries. When the YOD Association invested hundreds of dollars into their new class’ development, they were investing in the New England boat building industry, back when a dollar had the buying power of $15.42 (as of 2010).
The YOD Association announced in yachting magazines that it would sell the plans for a fraction of what it would cost any individual to commission such an extraordinary boat, and they hoped to generate much needed business for New England boat yards.
The YOD Design Competition
Waldo H. Brown, aka “Brownie”, was the driving force behind the Yankee One-Design Class. A charismatic naval architect, his first job in 1920 had been working in the Boston office of Burgess, Swasey, & Paine, alongside L.F. Herreshoff (who began in 1921).
In January of 1937 Brownie joined forces with Charlie Welch and six other New England yachtsmen who called themselves the Yankee One Design Class Association.
Their objective was to finally produce a 30′ racing boat fit for competition throughout all of New England, from Mount Desert, Maine to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.
Knowing that eight men could never agree on a design, though three might, the YOD Association gave sole authority to a Design Committee of Waldo Brown, Charlie Welch, and Philip Benson to develop and build the experimental boat.
On January 11, 1937 this committee sent a letter to all yacht designers with offices in New England, asking them to submit anonymous plans for a yacht of moderate size to be built at a comparatively low price. It was soon announced that a trio of world famous naval architects, L.F. Herreshoff, W. Starling Burgess, and Frank Paine would judge this competition, and that resources at MIT’s department of Naval Architecture would be used for drafting and model making.
A massive publicity effort included publication of the most promising designs submitted to the contest, in the April 1937 issues of Yachting, Rudder, and The Sportsman. All entries would be on display in Boston for the review of New England’s yachtsmen until June.
As Waldo Brown described it, the top designs and all the feedback that had been accrued would then be fed into a “mysterious black box” for the review of the disinterested consulting designers (Herreshoff, Burgess & Paine) who would then collaborate to create a composite boat out of all the best qualities submitted.
The Reality of the YOD Design Competition
On January 13, 1937 L.F. Herreshoff promptly wrote to Waldo Brown, stating, “I cannot enter this competition for the following reasons:
- The arrangement for the designing fee is not in accordance with the rules of the Naval Architects’ and Brokers’ Association.
- I feel that I do not want to submit a design that might not be understood and therefore spoiled when re-designed by non-professional designers.
- “At this particular time I am too busy with my regular work.”
On January 29, Waldo Brown and Charlie Welch spent the day in Bath, Maine where Starling Burgess was overseeing RANGER’s construction. By the end of that day Burgess had agreed to a public role as one of three “disinterested” judges while meanwhile, he would submit his own design.
Unlike the other contestants, Brownie and Welch soon began sending Burgess payments for his entry. Later correspondence between the YOD Association members make it clear that the larger group was unaware that Burgess and his draftsman, Geerd Hendel, had been paid for their submission.
Also, unlike the other contestants, Burgess’ design wasn’t anonymous. A generous view is that that Waldo Brown and Charlie Welch comissioned a design from Burgess to ensure that their contest would have at least one excellent entry. However, there’s no indication that Brownie and Welch ever considered the other entries.
At least one writer (Jack Sommer) has claimed that the development of the Yankee One-Design resulted in bad blood between Waldo Brown and Francis Herreshoff. However, it appears their personal problems stemmed from an earlier issue. This is evident in a February 1, 1937 letter from Brownie to Burgess, which mentions that,
“We are having a little difficulty with Francis Herreshoff. He says he wants to help us, and sometime ago promised to send in a plan, but since the Herreshoff correspondence, he seems to be a little cold. He made the statement to me yesterday that he would do as much as you did, but of course I am not in a position to tell him how much you are doing for us.”
– Waldo Brown to Starling Burgess,February 1, 1937
Ultimately, Herreshoff agreed to write an article for Rudder Magazine that spring, but it reads like an open letter to the design committee with appeals and criticisms that reinforce his role as an outsider. There is no mention of Herreshoff ever contributing to the design process, in fact, the last mention of him in the Mystic Museum documents is on February 5, when Burgess wrote to Brownie to say,
“The Yankee One-Design lines will leave here in time to reach you before the 15th. They are already well along. I will write to Francis, as you suggest. He is indeed hard to handle.”
Starling Burgess to Waldo Brown, February 5, 1937
One curious aspect of those words is that even from this very first mention, Burgess refers to his work as “the Yankee One-Design lines,” and not as a submission to a competition.
Waldo Brown echoes this language in his early correspondence. On March 1, 1937 Brownie sent Burgess a proof of his (Burgess’) Yachting article about the Yankees. Buried in that chatty letter about chowder and books, Brownie offers his compliments to Burgess’ chief draftsman, Geerd Hendel and says, “…tell him I hope he traces the Yankee Sail Plan as beautifully as he did the lines.”
Burgess wrote back on March 4th: “Dear Waldo, You certainly gave Nannie and the town of Wiscasset a thrill the day before yesterday. Reports reached me that you flew with but a matter of inches to spare between trees and other obstructions. I wish I had been there to see you.
“I received the copy of MY article last night and have been admiring my style ever since. I have gone over it carefully and see nothing to change, -though God help me if it ever leaks out who designed No. 22. Mr. Hendel is working evenings tracing your Sail Plan which I have worked out with care myself.”
– Starling Burgess to Waldo Brown, March 4, 1937
While we do know that Hendel traced the lines, and presumably filled in some details in the process, Burgess is very clear that he himself spent a great deal of time and care on these plans.
Then on March 10th, in a letter to Burgess, Brownie says, “Incidentally, I think you need have no fear about the origin of the design No. 22. If the matter ever did embarrass you, I suggest that they be attributed to Mr. Hendel. Draftsmen in other offices have contributed designs in their own name, so there is no reason why he should not have done so.”
By saying, “..there is no reason why he should have not done so,” Waldo Brown makes it clear that Hendel, indeed, did not contribute a design.
That March 10th letter is the first to sport the new YOD Association letterhead with a sidebar of consulting architects and contributing designers. It also lists Prof. George Owen and the MIT dept. of Naval Architecture as the drafting office for this new design.
YOD Class Consulting Architects
- W. Starling Burgess
- L. Francis Herreshoff
- Frank C. Paine
YOD Class Contributing Designers
- John Alden
- William F. Bannon
- Belknap & Paine & E. Arthur Shuman
- Concordia Company, Inc
- S.S. Crocker
- S. B. Crownshield
- Spaulding Dunbar
- Eldredge-Mcinnis Inc
- Furnans Yacht Agency
- Fred W. Goeller
- Fred L. Lawley
- C.O. Liljegren
- Charles G. MacGregor
- John C. Mohr
- William H. Muller
- Sparkman ” Stephens, Inc.
On March 23rd Waldo Brown paid an invoice for 40 hours of overtime to G.N. Hendel (at $1.35/hr). Burgess expected to receive his own payment for design No. 22 at a later date, but had asked that Hendel’s hours be covered immediately since his cash flow didn’t allow him to comfortably cover Hendel’s costs out of pocket.
On April 21, Charlie Welch and Waldo Brown sent more checks to Burgess. Welch wrote in the enclosed letter, “I think the job was very nicely done and we are entirely satisfied.”
Six days later, on April 27, Charlie Welch makes it official in a handwritten note to Burgess, “We are going to take your boat as it is by far the best boat. Will you make a construction plan & a drawing of the lead so we can get started on it. Send us your bill as before for this work.”
The observant reader will have noted that the YOD design competition was scheduled to be judged by Herreshoff, Burgess and Paine sometime after June 1. It’s clear that never happened, and Burgess continued to work as a solitary designer for Welch and Brown throughout that spring, as he created a series of drawings. When asked for any alterations to his original design (No. 22), he always did so without the input of a additional designer. These changes included the transom, the keel, and the stem.
It’s been rumored that a few of the designers who put time and effort into their submissions were ticked off when they heard that this competition had been rigged. But no one was more vocal in his objections than George Owen of MIT who claimed that, “the entire activity of the Design Committee had, in his opinion, been a cunning and nefarious scheme for the benefit of a certain design – contrary to the advertised aims of the Yankee One Design Association.”
Owen also objected that Design Committee had publicly claimed that they’d be using MIT’s drafting department for the development of this design, while they were obviously using someone else (Mr. Geerd Hendel) for this purpose.
The YOD Executive Committee’s meeting minutes of May 24, 1937 are a record of the attempt to diffuse Professor Owen’s criticisms, and include a detailed summary of the recent activities of the Design Committee and “the designer” (Burgess). This is certainly one instance where we would expect to find reference to another designer, if anyone had been collaborating with Burgess. On the contrary, it’s clear from this account that, “the designer” acted alone.
Also in those May 24th meeting minutes are a list of questions which had been posed to “the designer” whose design, had by then been dubbed 22A. On May 27th, Waldo Brown wrote to Burgess to ask him to answer these questions in an unsigned letter. Brown mentions that the same questions will be posed to MIT. He adds, “It is not likely that the Committee will pay too much attention to answers from the other source [MIT]. This is merely a gesture to make them think we are using them.”
On June 1, 1937, Burgess wrote a long letter to Brownie that begins, “I am terribly distressed at all this pother. If it will make it easier for you and Charlie (who have been kindness itself to me), and for your Committee, I am ready to tear up my lines and calculations and withdraw. I suppose I shall have to look to you for some renumeration for myself for actual time spent and for Mr. Hendel’s time. Needless to say I shall be very sorry, for it has all been a labor of love!”
The next two pages of Burgess’ June 1st letter give an account of the 30 years of “bad blood” between Burgess and George Owen from MIT, who comes off sounding like a caddy adolescent.
In the final two pages of this same letter, Burgess addresses the 12 questions about his design. Among other details, he agrees to increase the radius of the transom, hotly defends the lateral plane and the draft, and calls the “wine glass section” a matter of dollars and cents. Though he does seem fond of that last detail, “To my mind it lifts her from the Cape Cod Knockabout sort of thing to a well designed yacht.”Quickly putting the MIT drama behind them, Burgess and Hendel continue their work on the Yankee. On June 9th, Burgess wrote to Loring Swasey to let him know that arrangements had been made with the Bath Iron works to lay the boat down and make permanent wood patterns that will be sent to Britt Brothers.
Swasey, a former business partner of Burgess, was the treasurer for the YOD Association. In his June 9th letter, Burgess takes up the matter of compensation. Unfortunately for Burgess, but fortunately for our records, some bickering about payments ensues. The great thing about this is that there are a series of letters going back and forth between Burgess and the committee, detailing exactly what he has done for them, and various expectations about payment are voiced.To begin with, Burgess notes that as of June 1st, Mr. Hendel’s charges have been $141.75, representing 105 hrs. He requests payment for a balance due of $87.75 for Hendel, plus $350.00 for his (Burgess’) own time. He lists the work he will provide in exchange, for what is now being called design #1:
- Construction Plan
- Large Scale Midship Section Construction Plan
- Sail Plan
- Spar and Rigging Plan
- Weights and Data
The final list that Burgess provided on December 7, 1937 reads:
- Lines. Drawing No. 1. 1/16/37
- Offsets. Drawing No. 2. 6/10/37
- Construction plan. Drawing No. 12. 10/12/37
- Construction sections. Drawing No. 5. 5/30/37
- Sail plan. Drawing No. 9. 8/3/37
- Mast. Drawing No. 6. 6/19/37
- Boom. Drawing No. 7. 6/26/37
- Stem head fitting. Drawing No. 8. 7/30/37]
Swasey returned from a trip and wrote a letter to Burgess on June 17, 1937 with a wonderful doodle of a Yankee at the bottom. He says that he must meet with the chairman of the committee to discuss payments but, “I do not anticipate any trouble in coming to a satisfactory agreement with all concerned. You understand that the committee has to keep the whole matter of design anonymous. Speaking of design #22, as the one on which to build the foundation of the Yankee Class. However, I feel and as faras I know, the rest of the Committee, that we have been exceedingly fortunate in deciding on the design which was originated by you, and we feel it will be a great asset to the creation of the Class.”
On June 29th, the president of the YOD Association wrote to Burgess outlining a payment plan that was quite different from what the desiger had proposed.
On July 7th, Burgess copied Brownie on his replies to both Swasey and Jeffries (the treasurer and president of the YOD committee). He states that he should not be paid less than what is the normally accepted rate for the design of a 6-Metre boat, and notes, “I have given a great deal of time and thought to this work at a period during which I have been hard pressed with other matters and feel that any compensation should be at least reasonable.” (He is referring there to the construction and sea trials of RANGER.)
Burgess’ requests for payments divided his work into two categories: the development of design Number 22, and the subsequent development of Y1, or what was sometimes called the composite boat (even though it wasn’t really a composite).
The unwelcome response that he received from Jeffries includes this bombshell, “The Committee is not in a position to make any payment on account of the submission of Plan No. 22, as this and over twenty others were submitted by designers as their contribution in developing the ideal Yankee One Design plan, it being understood that as outlined in the original letter to designers there would eventually be a fee charged for the plans to each man building a boat and part of the proceeds would be used to divide among all the designers who had contributed.”
That statement flies in the face of what had already transpired, which is that Brown and Welch had been paying Burgess for the development of Plan No. 22 since early March.
The invoices and the payment disputes continue for many months. Meanwhile, Burgess keeps working on the plans and calculations, and starts negotiating with builders and spar makers for the construction of Y1 YANKEE.
This summary covers slighly less than half the stack of documents from the Burgess-Brown collection. The letters and invoices continue as Burgess and Brown work together to develop the new class and Y1 YANKEE is built. Even amidst their bickering over money, however, the friendship between these two men shines through in a way that makes them both extremely likable, and even at times endearing.
One of my favorite moments comes in postscript to an October 23rd letter to Burgess, where Brownie notes, “P.S. I notice that the blueprints recently received have your signature on them. This pleases me immensely and also adds greatly to their intrinsic and artistic value, but I am wondering just what the Committee will do about it. W.H.B”
The flurry of correspondence between Burgess and Brown peters out after the experimental boat (Y1 YANKEE) has been built and raced in the fall of 1937, and Burgess delivers his last set of plans.
The last letter we have from Burgess to Brown is three lines long, dated February 10, 1938. Burgess says that he is enclosing a letter of inquiry about the YOD class, and hopes that by now, Waldo’s contemplated operation is over and that he is in good shape. He adds, rather sweetly, “Won’t you please let me hear from you from time to time? Looking forward to seeing you soon.”
The last letter from Waldo Brown to Starling Burgess in this collection is a direct reply, on February 14, 1938. He mentions his hospitalization, and notes that he was sorry to hear of Burgess’ own operation. About the boats, he writes, “Inquiries continue coming in from all over the world. We have sold one set of plans in New York and one in Toronto, and it is rumored that Jeff and Charlie have a fleet rounded up in Marblehead next year, but as yet I do not know that they have placed any orders.”
Unfortunately, the Marblehead fleet of Yankees didn’t materialize; the yacht club members commissioned a fleet of International One Designs that winter instead.
Waldo Brown died a year later, on April 4, 1939, at the age of 42.
The remainder of the correspondence in this collection are letters between Burgess and the treasurer of the YOD Association, who was by then J.A. Jeffries. Burgess and the Association had an agreement that he would be paid $20.00 for every boat built as of June 1 of each year. So on June 1st of each year they checked in with each other, and provide us with a very accurate account of the building of the earliest Yankee One Design boats, right up until production paused for WWII, in 1941.